Culture  /  Origin Story

The Deep and Twisted Roots of the American Yam

The American yam is not the food it says it is. How that came to be is a story of robbery, reinvention, and identity.

Moist sand clings to their flesh like brown sugar. I drag my index and middle fingers down their spine, my thumb along their sides. They are fresh and soft and warm. In my hands lies a precious thing.

“Yam” is what we call it, my people and me. My father’s mother ate yams under the tin roof of a Louisiana sharecropping shack; my mother’s mother learned to cook them from her father and passed the secret down to me. First boil, next peel and slice, then dress, and finally bake. If we know anything, we know yams. Us and them go way back.

It’s just that biologically, phonetically, or otherwise speaking, “yam” is a bit of a misnomer. The true yam, the original yam, is from West Africa and goes by the scientific classification Dioscorea rotundata, a name I cannot pronounce but I can discern is not the same as the sweet potato, whose official designation is Ipomoea batatas. A West African yam can grow to the size of an arm or a leg. It is earthen and hairy, like an elephant or a rhino, and tastes kind of like a russet potato with a far more fibrous consistency. It is white, not orange, on the inside, and it cannot grow in non-tropical climates. There is nothing sweet about it. And yet whenever anyone in my family sees a steaming sweet potato—all orange insides and bubbling sugar—the word that almost always comes out of our mouths is “yam.”

The origins of the term are steeped in ambiguity. On the slave coast, along the Bight of Benin, there are many fertile sources from which it may have grown. The word “nyam” appears in both Serer (meaning “eat”) and Wolof (meaning “taste”). “Nyami,” in Fulani, and “nymabi,” in Bantu, each mean “to eat.” In Twi, a dialect of the Akan people, “anyinam” quite literally translates to “yam.” The true yam was the ruling crop of West Africa: fueler of cultures and civilizations. Many polities in the region still hold festivals in its honor. When the first European vessels made landfall on the continent, “yam” was applied to this tuber in a kind of linguistic disconnect. Slavers regarded the crop as they did the people who they aimed to make chattel: wretched and expendable. “In their own country, the negroes in general live on animal food and filth,” wrote a British trafficking physician in 1788, “with roots, yamsand Indian corn.”